Self-driving cars got two shots in the arm this week with the announcements Tuesday that both Daimler, parent of Mercedes-Benz, and BMW are moving forward on partnerships to improve autonomy. The upshot is more on-the-road testing that’s essential before the first Level 4 and Level 5 cars are put in the hands of buyers.
The first announcement is that Daimler and partner Bosch will use the Nvidia Drive Pegasus AI platform, with the intention of shipping cars within five years, initially to be used as autonomous taxis. In the other, BMW says it will join the Apollo open autonomous drive platform of Baidu.
Mercedes-Benz V-Class van will be used as a robo-taxi.
For Daimler, the alliance with Nvidia means it gets better autonomous-driving performance, and it gets the trunk back. The compute package should be much compact. Currently, when you open the cargo bay or trunk of a self-driving vehicle, you see a bunch of boxes, cables, tie-downs, and blinking lights. Effectively, what’s in the trunk consumes vast amounts of power and converts the kilowatts into driving calculations and heat, although not in equal quantity.
The Nvidia system is capable of 320 trillion operations per second. The goal is to provide enough computer power for Level 4 and Level 5 vehicles that function for extended periods without the driver’s intervention. Level 4 would work only on certain roads, say interstates, and would give adequate notice, not just 10 seconds, that the driver needs to grab the wheel, or at least scream.
Test vehicles will be the MB V-Class van (no, you can’t buy it here) and the S-Class sedan (yes, you could, if you brought a six-figure check for the base car without autonomy). They’ll start driving test loops in Silicon Valley in a city to be announced. If all goes well, the platform will on the road for all within five years. So, if that’s not the 2019 or 2020 we heard the most aggressive automakers promise, it’s still the blink of an eye in the 150-year history of the automobile.
BMW-Baidu Apollo car at announcement in Germany.
The BMW Group announcement was about the partnership and ties between the German automaker and the Chinese internet search giant. China is already BMW’s biggest market for vehicles, bigger than the 2-3 markets, USA and Germany, combined. The partnership was formalized in Berlin as a memorandum of understanding under which BMW joins Apollo – Baidu’s open autonomous driving platform – as a board member. The partnership announcement got high-level visibility. It was part of the official visit to Germany by China’s Premier Li Keqiang’s and meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In a statement, Baidu and BMW said,
“BMW Group and Baidu have a long history of working together on advancing autonomous driving technology, and we have maintained a strong relationship throughout the years. BMW Group and Baidu have been actively exploring the intelligent vehicle sector and are well-aligned in our vision for the future of autonomous driving,” said Ya-Qin Zhang, President of Baidu. “We hope this deepened cooperation will bring Chinese consumers intelligent and comfortable product experiences. Our aim is to accelerate the development of autonomous driving technologies that align with the Chinese market.”
The BMW Group is developing autonomous driving systems ranging from Level 3 (hands-off self-driving, but be prepared to take over on short notice) through Level 4/5. According to BMW, “This scalable autonomous driving solution is being developed with technology and OEM partners that contribute knowledge, resources and intellectual property assets for a state-of-the-art concept.”
The Apollo platform was announced last July (2017) and reports 118 partners. BMW and Baidu had earlier joined to work on connected vehicles.